By Slavoj Žižek*
Donald Trump should not receive the Nobel Peace prize. But will he? The French have a beautiful expression, “voyons voir,” which can be roughly translated as “let’s wait and see what happens.”
Four US presidents have already been awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter (after leaving office), and Barack Obama in 2009 for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between people.” Now, this explanation was complete fakery, and it merely expressed the hope that Obama would act like that going forward.
As unbelievable as the proposal for Trump to get the Nobel Peace Prize is, we should nevertheless react to it in three ways.
First, we should bear in mind that the great compromise which enabled the breakthrough towards a peaceful resolution of the Korean crisis was made not by Trump but by Kim Jong-un. It was Kim who made the key concession, which means any prize should be directed to the pair jointly. And the weakness of this idea is obvious – it would invite ridicule to hand the Nobel Peace Prize to the head of arguably the most oppressive regime in the world.
Second, remember how, a little while ago, Trump was competing with Kim about the buttons to trigger nuclear missiles that they have at their disposal, with the American claiming his button is bigger than that of his counterpart in Pyongyang.
As such, the extreme oscillations in the public perception of the Korean crisis are significant. One week, we are told we are on a brink of nuclear war; then there is a week of respite, then the war threat explodes again.
When I visited Seoul in August 2017, my friends there told me there is no serious threat of a war because the North Korean regime knows it cannot survive it. Yet, the South Korean authorities have often prepared their population for a nuclear war.
And, lately, our media has reported on the more and more ridiculous exchange of insults between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. But the irony of the situation is that, when we get (what appears to be) two immature men letting go of their rage and hurling insults at each other, our only hope is that there is some anonymous and invisible institutional constraint preventing their rage to explode into a full-on war.
Usually, we tend to complain that in today’s alienated and bureaucratized politics, institutional pressures and constraints prevent politicians from expressing their personal visions. But, in this case, we hope such constraints will prevent the expression of all too crazy personal visions.
Thus, should Donald and Kim really be rewarded just for performing a sudden U-turn and not acting as crazy as we feared?
Third, the unpleasant truth (for leftist liberals) is that, far from being just the bellicose crazy US leader, Trump hasn’t turned out so bad in comparison with Hillary Clinton.
Indeed, asked by The Guardian whether she truly believes Clinton would be more dangerous than Trump, the actress Susan Sarandon responded: “I did think she was very, very dangerous. We would still be fracking, we would be at war [if she were president]. It wouldn’t be much smoother.
“Look what happened under Obama that we didn’t notice. She would’ve done it the way Obama did it, which was sneakily. He deported more people than have been deported now. How he got the Nobel Peace Prize, I don’t know,” she added.
Indeed, we should thus always bear in mind that, at his worst, Trump is mostly just continuing the politics of his predecessors.
Who, then, really deserves the Nobel Peace Prize? Probably, those who, for sure, will never get it. Try to recall a frightening detail from the Cuban missile crisis: only later did we learn how close to nuclear war we were during a naval skirmish between an American destroyer and a Soviet B-59 submarine off Cuba on October 27, 1962.
The destroyer dropped depth charges near the submarine to try to force it to surface, not knowing it had a nuclear-tipped torpedo. Vadim Orlov, a member of the submarine crew, told the conference in Havana that the submarine was authorized to fire if three officers agreed. The officers began a fierce shouting debate over whether to sink the ship. Two of them said Yes and the other said No.
“A guy named Arkhipov saved the world,” was a bitter comment of a historian on this accident.
Do we not all silently count on something similar in the heated exchange between the US and others – that, at a decisive moment, a single individual will find strength to cut short the mad circle of nuclear threats and counter-threats?
A similar act, much less known, was also committed in the Soviet Union in an even darker time. Sophia Karpai was the head of the cardiographic unit of the Kremlin Hospital in the late 1940s. Her (accidental) misfortune was that it was her job to take twice the electrocardiogram of Andrei Zhdanov, on July 25 1948 and on July 31, days before Zhdanov’s death, due to heart failure.
The first ECG, taken after Zhdanov displayed some heart problems, was inconclusive (a heart attack could be neither confirmed nor excluded), while the second one surprisingly showed a much better picture (the intraventricular blockage disappeared, a clear indication that there was no heart attack).
In 1951, she was arrested on charges that alleged, in a conspiracy with other doctors treating Zhdanov, she falsified the data, erasing the clear indications that a heart attack did occur, thereby depriving Zhdanov of the special care needed by a victim of cardiac arrest. After harsh treatment, including a brutal beating, all the other accused doctors confessed. “Sophia Karpai, whom her boss doctor Vinogradov had described as nothing more than ‘a typical person of the street with the morals of the petty bourgeoisie,’ was kept in a refrigerated cell without sleep to compel a confession. However, she did not confess.” (Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov, Stalin’s Last Crime, New York: HarperCollins 2003, p. 307) And the impact and significance of her perseverance cannot be overestimated: her signature would have dotted the ‘i’ on the prosecutor’s case on the “doctor’s plot,” immediately setting in motion the mechanism that, once rolling, would lead to the death of hundreds of thousands, maybe even to a new European war (according to Stalin’s plan, the “doctor’s plot” should have demonstrated that the Western intelligence agencies tried to murder the top Soviet leaders, and thus served as an excuse to attack Western Europe).
She persisted just long enough for Stalin to enter his final coma, after which the entire case was immediately dismissed. And her simple heroism was crucial in the series of details which, “like grains of sand in the gears of the huge machine that had been set in motion, prevented another catastrophe in Soviet society and politics generally, and saved the lives of thousands, if not millions, of innocent people.” (Op.cit., p. 297)
This simple persistence against all odds is ultimately the stuff true heroes are made of. We learn about such cases only sometimes and only years later. So, if there is to be a minimal justice in who gets the Nobel Peace Prize, it should be given neither to active politicians for their present acts (i.e., for just no being as brutal as one expected them to be) nor to politicians for their future expected acts; the prize should be given retroactively, to nameless heroes like Arkhipov and Karpai.
*Slavoj Žižek is a cultural philosopher. He’s a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University, and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London.